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Active Learning – Getting Ready For Higher Education And Work

Education should equip students with the knowledge and skills they need for the next phase of their lives.

When Cambridge International A Level is taught using ‘active learning’ approaches, students are encouraged to analyse, evaluate and solve problems. They will be well prepared for university and the world of work, and they will develop a lasting passion for learning.

What is active learning?

‘Active learning’ is meaningful learning. It focuses on how students learn, and not just on what they learn. A student who is engaged in active learning is not a passive recipient of knowledge but responds to learning opportunities provided by their teacher to get them to ‘think hard’ about their subject. A great way to get students to think hard is to involve them in a class discussion. By asking open-ended questions during the discussion, students are able to develop their ideas and learn from each other. Teachers may want to prompt them to think even harder by asking further questions like ‘why do you think that?’

Active learning also encourages students to construct meaning from information to build knowledge and understanding. Students continually develop this knowledge, achieving deeper levels of understanding.

Although working in groups can be a useful technique in active learning, it is a common misconception that this defines active learning. Instead, the action comes from students thinking hard and creating meaning.

Why active learning?

Students who want to gain a place at a good university need a balance of facts, knowledge and skills. Active learning ensures students use all of these together. That’s also why we ensure that Cambridge International A Level exams do not simply test a recall of knowledge but require students to draw on their understanding to analyse, evaluate and apply their knowledge.

Through active learning, students become more involved with their learning, which in turn encourages greater focus and enthusiasm for their studies. Students who are interested in their education and engaged with the learning process are unlikely to be fazed by unfamiliar learning situations or challenging tasks. They develop a greater self-belief in their ability to learn – the more engaged they are, the more confident they become in dealing with unfamiliar situations. They believe they can succeed, which sets them up for life-long learning beyond the classroom.

How to implement active learning

In practice, active learning is achieved with increasingly complex ‘scaffolding’. This educational scaffolding works in the same way that scaffolding works in the construction of a building. Teachers provide guidance that supports and challenges students based upon their current ability. Then, as learners’ understanding grows, teachers gradually remove the support.

Dani Tillier, a geography teacher from Lonehill Academy International in Johannesburg gave me an example of how he uses active learning in the classroom. ‘Active learning is the cornerstone of creating independent and engaged learners, which is vital in the study of geography and its related fields. When exploring the theme of Population, and the issues surrounding population growth; students are able to better deepen their understanding through a class debate. The class is divided into Team Malthus, and Team Boserup, and is required to research the theorists and present a well-rounded argument.  The research component and debate allows learners to better understand the complexity of this issue, and view it from all possible perspectives. Active learning brings meaning and value to many Geography topics, whilst allowing learners to develop important analytical skills.’

This example shows that the key to students becoming active learners is in the teaching. Active learning requires highly skilled instruction that draws on a wide range of teaching techniques. In the classroom, skilled teachers make deeper levels of understanding more possible by providing opportunities, interactions, tasks and instruction that foster deep learning.

 Active learning and higher education

Mara Brendel, completed Cambridge International AS Levels in 2016 at Lonehill International Academy in Johannesburg and is now at university.

‘As a BA Language and B.Pd. Sci student at the University of Pretoria, I am finding my Cambridge education to be of great benefit to me. Becoming a tertiary student, I knew I would face difficulties in terms of the work being covered and was not sure how I would cope. But as assignments and projects came flying at me from all the modules including English, History, Politics and German I realised how strong my Cambridge foundation is. The fact that I was encouraged by my teachers at school to be an inquisitive pupil, not taking a superficial approach to understanding but always engaging in the subject content was a strong benefit. I never expected to be handed down solutions. An interactive approach in my school classrooms resulted in my own discovery of answers using a variety of resources, not just relying on one prescribed textbook. I am able to apply the skills gained during my Cambridge experience to my university courses.’

Active learners are learners who are well prepared for university and the world of work. The approach to teaching in their schools focuses on learning as well as attainment. In these schools, teachers encourage and instil within pupils enjoyment and ownership of their own learning – vital for those going on to higher education. Such a school ethos requires strong leadership and the confidence that a focus on ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ students learn will yield good examination results.

The use of active learning during Cambridge International A Levels in particular is the ideal preparation for university, where students will be required to think for themselves and have the ability and skills to deepen their own knowledge. It also helps develop passionate, lifelong learners, who will enjoy the benefits of active learning beyond university and throughout their lives.


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